Woefully Unprepared

The Guardian has a piece today under the headline “Civil service told it is ‘woefully unprepared’ for Cummings’ reforms

It is based on a report in The Daily Telegraph but as there is not enough money in the world to make me read the Telegraph we will have to settle for The Guardian’s coverage.

The report sets out three proposed areas of change.

The first is a vague mention of regular exams for Civil Servants. This sounds rather Confucian and experience shows that exams are a very poor measure of performance as passing the exam rapidly takes priority over being any good at whatever it is the exam purports to measure.

Given that a core part of the cultural malaise in the Senior Civil Service is that it rewards passing exams, in particular PPE, over delivery it seems odd to add in a further layer of tokenism.

The second is encouraging people to stay in post for longer than 18 months.

The problem is that the madness that is Civil Service pay penalises anyone who stays in post for more than 18 months. I was part way through the delivery of a major programme when one of the key policy people left Cabinet Office for a job with HMRC which paid £5,000 more. I had no ability to match that offer even though they were literally moving from one side of a corridor to the other.

Whilst there is a significant problem in that experience is not rewarded, the deeper issue is that responsibility is not accepted. Trying to find who is actually responsible for any project or programme which has been running for more than 6 months is usually impossible.

The last challenge for keeping staff longer is that the culture of the Senior Civil Service is profoundly hostile to delivery. Most people I know who have held senior positions in major delivery programmes have suffered severe mental and physical health issues as a result. The only way delivery people cope is by moving on to the next delivery programme.

So tackling the 18 month issue will require major changes to pay, leadership and basic management capability. I have severe doubts about the ability of the SCS in these straitened times to cope with such changes.

The third idea is that ‘that civil servants will be “reoriented to the public” rather than “stakeholders”’. I do not know what this actually means. On the one hand it could be the excellent idea that user centred design should be at the heart of policy making and delivery, on the other it could just lead to stasis as more and more voices drown one another out as government tries to deal with deep and complex issues.

That said, I found working directly with people to be the best part of being a Civil Servant.

So exams sound weirdly self-defeating, changing the “18 months culture” will require very radical action, and if “reorienting to the public” means User Centred Design then that is a very positive move.

3 thoughts on “Woefully Unprepared

  1. I’m not a civil servant but having dealt with many: Having worked in many fields in journalism, photojournalism, photography, publishing, marketing, a housing and community regeneration organisation, As well as more ordinary jobs I cannot believe the lack of accountability and personal responsibility and direct work experience in many government departments and in government itself.

    Which would not fly in any other field I have worked in. I’m sure your assessment is correct and they need to reward personal accountability, knowledge and experience doing the job well on criteria that are other than target driven or exam based. Targets are for sales people and you get the feeling that this government is trying to make situations fit criteria they do not in order to give them bragging rights at election time. There is a lot to be said for appreciating what and who works well.

    Also there should be some latitude in decision making in any field many areas including salary- especially where it is common sense to consider the cost of training a replacement to the same level. It sounds as if your level of experience is not being appreciated. Too often I have commented myself about how systems could be improved, in private industry this would be appreciated and potentially rewarded and would result in changes where appropriate. All too often this has not been the case when commenting on government departments as a user. And people have either felt powerless to feed these comments back- or I suspect to give their own and a process of doing this, backed up by producing cost benefit analysis, has been at the core of innovation in many private sector jobs I have worked in, some as a consultant. Cummins suggestions sound either basic, lazy or naïve, politicians should have to prove prior work experience commensurate with the roles they take on.

    As I have said in the past I think voters should have to take and pass a basic awareness of issues test before being allowed to vote.


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